The World Martin Luther Was Born Into (4:54)
Luther was born in rural Germany and into a medieval world based on peasantry, nobility, feudalism, and the Church. After the fall of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church had helped hold Europe together during the Middle Ages — it was the Age of Faith.
Complete Video Script
The story of Martin Luther — the man who would become the most notorious, celebrated, and provocative figure of his age — begins here, in the bucolic German countryside south of Berlin.
When Luther was born — in this house, in Eisleben, in 1483 — he entered a world that was still medieval: Most people lived in humble villages. They tilled the fields. They lived their entire lives in a single place, poor and illiterate. They bowed down to the local duke who protected them from rampaging bandits. And in every town, overseeing it all was the biggest and richest structure in town — the church. Though most people were poor, Luther's father owned a copper mining business, and his son got the best education this remote land could offer.
Luther's story was set here in rural Germany, at the end of the Middle Ages. But, to understand the Reformation we need to go back a thousand years, to far-off Rome. When the ancient Roman Empire fell, around the year 500, it created a power vacuum that left Europe in relative poverty and stagnation for ten centuries — the Middle Ages.
During that difficult time, the Roman Catholic Church held Europe together. It provided more than religion. It provided stability — it was the one thing that united a fractured Europe, offering continuity and comfort in a troubled age. Echoes of ancient Rome lived on in the Church: Roman Senators became bishops; the design of their law courts — called "basilicas" — became the design of their churches; and the Roman emperor (called the pontifex maximus) became the Christian pope (also called the pontifex maximus). The Church was "Roman" because it was ruled from Rome, and "catholic" — a word that means universal.
Through the Middle Ages, the Church condoned a kind of institutionalized slavery: that was feudalism. Feudal European society was made of three parts: The nobility had the secular power and owned most of the land. The Church — which was the educated elite controlled the Word of God and provided spiritual blessings. And the down-trodden peasantry — they did all the hard labor.
For commoners — that was 90 percent of the population — life was pretty miserable. Most children died before adulthood. Punishments for the poor were harsh. The Plague, which routinely devastated towns — killing a third of the population — was thought to be the wrath of God. It was a frightful time. People worked the land, hoping only to survive the winter. Life for the vast majority was a dreary existence, tolerable only as a preparation for heaven.
The Church offered a glimmer of hope, with the promise of eternal happiness in paradise. Art was considered worthwhile and legitimate only as long as it glorified God. Entire communities dedicated generations of their resources to constructing the biggest buildings of the age — awe-inspiring cathedrals lit by splendid stained glass. The Church commissioned society’s greatest art: statues, pulpits, and altarpieces — all done anonymously. And Europe’s faithful masses paid the price and carried the stone.
To this day, all over Europe, you can see the legacy of this great medieval “Age of Faith” — soaring naves topped with elaborate Gothic arches and flooded with a heavenly light. Art was a tool of the Church — both to teach and to terrify. Imagine: Once a week, illiterate peasants would walk into a church and be wonder-struck by stained glass, towering columns, and glittering glories. Church art gave them a glimpse of the amazing heaven that would reward only the faithful… and the terrible hell awaiting those who disobeyed.
Martin Luther lived at the end of this period but on the cusp of dramatic change — the dawn of the modern age.